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The Full Meaning of the Assisi Meeting

We need a clear context to understand the ecumenical and inter-religious meeting of Pope Francis in Assisi this Tuesday, which commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Meeting of Prayer for Peace, held first by John Paul II on October 27, 1986. Such meetings generate confusion in an already confused culture, where most people have embraced a pluralistic theology of religions: i.e., all religions are the same, equally vehicles of salvation, equally true and good, and as such where religious diversity is taken to be part of the will of God.

But this understanding of religious pluralism is not the Church’s teaching. This is clear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, John Paul II’s 1990 Encyclical Redemptoris missio, as well as the 2000 CDF document, Dominus Iesus. But here, I will let John Paul II speak for himself on the meaning of Assisi. He does so in his 1986 “Christmas Address to the Roman Curia.”

John Paul identifies three important dimensions of our world: the orders of creation, the fall into sin, and redemption in Jesus Christ. The order of creation is the ground of universal human identity as God’s image bearer, and of the unity of all members of the human family in a divine origin. Man is stamped in his created nature with the dynamic of desiring God because we have been created by Him and for Him. Thus, all men have a radical unity because we have one single origin and goal.

The order of redemption finds its central point in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, says John Paul, quoting Nostra aetate §2, “in whom men find the fullness of their religious life, and in whom God has reconciled all things to himself.” This order grounds the universal scope of the atoning work of Christ. In his infinite, all-embracing love, God desires the salvation of all men in Christ. (1 Tim 2:4-6)

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Jesus, the Son of God, freely suffered death for us in complete and free submission to the will of God, his Father. By his death he has conquered death, and so opened the possibility of salvation to all men.” (§1019) Yet the Council of Trent said, “even though ‘Christ died for all’ [2 Cor 5:15], still not all do receive the benefit of His death, but those only to whom the merit of His passion is imparted.” So although it is profoundly true that “all men are called to salvation by the grace of God” (Lumen gentium §13), there is a basic difference between “offer” and “call,” on the one hand, and actuality of reception on the other.

Pope John Paul II et alia (Assisi, 1986)

In between the orders of divine creation and redemption is the order of the fall into sin. John Paul puts “religious differences” in this context because they do not “derive from the design of God.” He says, “If it is the order of unity that goes back to creation and redemption and is, therefore, in this sense, ‘divine,’ such differences – and even religious divergences – go back to a ‘human fact’, and must be overcome in progress towards the realization of the mighty plan of [salvific] unity which dominates the creation.”

Religious diversity, then, belongs to the order of the fall into sin because it reflects the human reception of that “offer,” “call,” and “grace.” Man is open to resistance and hence to distorting, misinterpreting, and rejecting God’s revelation in creation and redemption in Christ. John Paul says these differences reveal “the limitations, the evolutions, and the falls of the human spirit which is undermined by the spirit of evil in history.” (Lumen gentium 16) He adds, these religious differences are such that they “are diverse and mutually incompatible,” so much so that “one can also feel that their divisions are insuperable.”

Yes, John Paul also says that the Church does not hold that non-Christian religions are completely false in all the claims they make, but only in those that are logically incompatible with Christian truth claims. So, as Vatican II says, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.” (Nostra aetate §2) At the same time the Church unequivocally affirms “the duty of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.” This means, John Paul explains, “that the Church is called to work with all her energies (evangelization, prayer, dialogue) so that the wounds and divisions of men – which separate them from their Origin and Goal, and make them hostile to one another – may be healed. . . .consolidated, and raised up” in accordance with the salvific plan of God in Jesus Christ. According to the Church, “dialogue does not necessarily exclude other forms of contact, such as, among others, apologetics, confrontation, and discussion.”

The deep structure “of the created unity of the human race, and of the unity of the salvific work of Christ,” says John Paul, as well as the positive elements within non-Christian religions, expresses “that all those who have not yet received the Gospel are ‘oriented’ [Lumen gentium §16] toward the supreme unity of the people of God.” By virtue of the “real and objective value of this ‘orientation,’” there is a basis, not only for dialogue but also evangelization. For evangelization, because these religious people belong to God’s people in potentiality, is only a possibility, not a reality. This possibility is rooted in the “power of Christ, which is sufficient [but not efficacious] for the salvation of the whole human race.”

Finally, Assisi was called to encourage the “maintaining of good fellowship among the nations” (1 Pet 2:12), and, if possible, as far as depends on one, to live at peace with all men.” (Rom 12:18)

Faithful Catholics should keep the full truth about such encounters in mind as they watch events in Assisi on Tuesday.

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II (2015) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018).